‘I love the A-TEAM,” exclaims Carol Johnson when asked about the group’s first exhibition at Grounds For Sculpture, opening this Saturday, August 25, with a reception from noon to 2 p.m. in the education gallery

It’s common for artists to be enthusiastic about their groups, but Johnson’s group is doubly rewarding. She is a member of the artist collective comprising men and women who regularly use the services of the Trenton Area Soup Kitchen (TASK). It’s clear that just as TASK provides physical sustenance for its clients, the collective also fuels their passion for art.

The artists joined forces in 2001 and with the help of TASK’s staff formed the group that, according to its website, promotes one another’s work, supports and encourages each other’s success, promotes the group as a business, and generates good will for the people of Trenton.

The artists are self-taught and work in a wide variety of media, including paint, pencil and ink, pastel, collage, and found-object construction. Their studio space and basic supplies are provided by TASK. Other donations come from artists who have a surplus of materials and from galleries or framers.

And while the group is housed within a social organization, their day-to-day activities are determined by the artists themselves. One of their activities is to connect with established practicing arts professionals.

One such professional is Dion Hitchings, a nationally exhibiting visual artist, art director, and owner of Outsider Gallery Art Gallery in Frenchtown.

“I love the A-TEAM,” says Hitchings, echoing Johnson’s exclamation, from his gallery that represents the collective. “Each artist has his or her own world. They are untaught, so they had to make up their own world. They have made up their own universes.” He also notes that, since all of the artists are happy just to create art, there is mainly positive energy in their pieces. That energy makes the work engaging and often saleable.

“I would not have them in my gallery if I did not believe in them 100 percent. I have a choice of artists from around the world, but I choose to have them because I think they have a unique body of work and some of the artists are remarkable,” Hitchings says.

The A-TEAM artists meet once a week for about five hours in the multipurpose room at TASK. During that time, they work on projects of their choice. The group is open to all members of the soup kitchen community. To join an artist must produce a piece of artwork and participate, when possible, at the monthly A-TEAM business meetings when they plan and share new artwork.

But most importantly, involvement in the A-TEAM requires people to be who they are.

Carol Johnson attests to that. “I always wanted to an artist, but my mother said that there was no money in it. She said I should do hairdressing. So I put the art in the back of my mind, but I always drew and always loved it.”

Johnson was referring to her childhood in the 1940s, back when she lived in Lambertville and long before she would raise five daughters and help rear 20 grandchildren and 21 great-grandchildren in Trenton.

But in the year 2000, art returned to her life in an unexpected and unfortunate way. “I lost my mother, sister, and two brothers within a two-month period. I got very depressed,” says Johnson, who now lives in a building for seniors.

Johnson says that to deal with her emotions she closed herself in a dark room at home and began writing poems, something she had never done before. Her depression continued for several years.

Encouraged by her family to visit the Reading Senior Center in downtown Trenton and socialize, Johnson reluctantly agreed. Instead of finding the old people that she didn’t want to be involved with, she found a lost love — art.

Her matchmaker was Shorty Rose, an original A-TEAM member. After learning that Johnson was creating poems, Rose invited her to attend one of A-TEAM’s weekly meetings at the TASK headquarters on Escher Street, near the Trenton Police Department.

It was there and then that her life re-opened.

“It’s just amazing,” Johnson says of her transformation and her rediscovered passion. “If I didn’t go to the A-TEAM I could not express my feelings.”

Of her acrylic paintings, Johnson says, “I do everyday life, expressions. I always put words on my painting so the people know what the painting is about. I want people to feel real life.”

To help make the point Johnson explains that in one of her paintings she showed the image of girl smelling a rose. But to accomplish something deeper than the image, Johnson added words to the canvas to tell her viewers that the flower came from the grave of the girl’s mother.

“I want my paintings to reach out to someone and relate to them. If they don’t buy my painting, they can at least look at it and learn or feel something,” says Johnson.

While some of her art has sold, other works are on display with A-TEAM members at the TASK center, the Henry J. Austin Health Center in Trenton, the Trenton Municipal Court facilities, and the Historical Society of Princeton’s Updike Farmstead.

And while having work purchased is good, Johnson is hoping for something even more rewarding. “My head is so full of ideas that I just want to put them on paper. I’m just reaching for the one painting,” the one that will resonate with people and bring her recognition.

To do so she said that she creates artwork all the time and participates in the A-TEAM activities.

“We meet once a week on Tuesday; we would go everyday if we had space. We need to do art every day. I have so much feeling that I can paint. And every third Tuesday, we help Mercer ARC. We have the kids group and the adults come in.”

Also on the list of A-TEAM activities is the upcoming creation of an indoor mural in one of Trenton’s social service buildings, not to mention the monthly sessions where the collective works with individuals at the Trenton Psychiatric Hospital.

Although she has a drivers license, Johnson says that she cannot afford to maintain a car on her SSI and braves heat and cold to take public transportation to participate in the various activities. When not directly participating with the A-TEAM, Johnson works as an advocate of art for all people. She goes to playgrounds with art supplies and encourages children to participate; she even provides opportunities for others in the senior home where she now lives.

“Make time for art. It would mean so much to put it on paper. It won’t only help you, it will help others. Never say never. If you really concentrate, you can bring your talent out. Art is for everybody,” she says.

As for her work being in the nationally recognized Grounds For Sculpture exhibition, Johnson says, “It’s great. It will be my first time there. I have been raising kids and grandkids so I don’t get out much. I never traveled much. I never drink, never smoked in my life. I just stay home and try to do the right thing,” which, it turns out, means creating art.

“Grounded in Art,” the A-TEAM’s Grounds For Sculpture exhibition, opens in the Education Gallery Saturday, August 25, with a reception from noon to 2 p.m. On display: 41 pieces by 24 artists, including work by Shorty Rose, an original A-TEAM member. Also a performance by the FunkTASKtics musicians and the SHARE poets, both also from TASK. The exhibit will continue through October 21. 609-586-0616.

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